The magic that is KZN

2013-11-06 00:00

LAST week’s column, in which I wrote about the challenge of covering a culturally diverse community, elicited a range and volume of responses that left me surprised.

One of the interesting aspects of the job of editing a newspaper is that just when you think you know it all, you realise you don’t know very much at all, particularly when it comes to understanding your readers.

Part of the job is getting to know what makes people tick, what they care about, and what pushes their buttons. Writing in this space is also a way for me to share my assumptions and, often, to have them dashed by the realities of readers’ responses. Last week, I wrote about the perplexing task of reporting on issues involving traditional beliefs in witchcraft and so on, while respecting the views of people who held them, and also while maintaining a distance that would retain journalistic integrity.

Among the interesting calls and correspondence that piece elicited was from a reader who proudly told me he was 100 years old and a lifelong reader of The Witness  — both of which knocked my socks off. He spoke about how he had recruited the help of sangomas on his farm to help find lost cattle, for example. He said they had been uncannily accurate and he related the experience as an example of how such beliefs straddled different communities in KwaZulu-Natal.

Some of the conversations that column sparked will continue to flow into these pages in the coming weeks.

For example, Witness reporter Thobani Ngqulunga has written an interesting column in response to my piece in which he shares some of his own experiences of growing up, and how firmly entrenched beliefs such as ukuthakatha are woven into the daily lives of people, including the educated and powerful.

While the response to the column took me by surprise, I can see how I can draw some lessons from this.

It’s clear to me that South Africans are eager to have a conversation about what it means to be South African, and are eager to explain and share their cultural viewpoints. There’s plenty of market research to support this idea as, nearly 20 years on, the search for a common South African identity continues in earnest.

I think this presents a powerful opportunity for the media to act as a platform for people to engage with each other in a conversation often fraught with misperceptions. So, if you’d like to open another round in the big debate about who we are and what we don’t know about each other, please embrace this space and send in your views!

If you follow the bylines on articles on this page, you will see in the coming weeks a plethora of new names which may be more familiar to you on the news pages or elsewhere in the paper. This change is partly driven by economics and The Witness having to tighten its belt, but also by a desire from my side to bring the writers of The Witness into the opinion pages. We have a diverse, smart group of people on the team who know the issues of our region well and who apply their minds to them daily. I think it’s important that you get to know them and their views better through these pages.

I’m also hoping that by driving home-grown Witness writing into these pages, we will refresh the voice of the paper as a truly KwaZulu-Natal entity.

This province is so unique and exciting, it’s almost a crime for us not to celebrate and explore it at every opportunity in these pages. I have lived all over South Africa for the past 20 years and so have a relatively unusual perspective, seeing KwaZulu-Natal with fresh eyes.

On Sunday night in my Melrose cottage, I listened to the boom and crackle of fireworks as Diwali was celebrated, and it was not hard to imagine I was living in another country.

I hope you still see the magic in this place. KwaZulu-Natal has a culture that is diverse and invigorating. The economy is robust and growing. The diversity of news and people to write about is breathtaking. The challenge is not what to write about, but what we can afford to leave out. I love the exotic energy of Durban and how it’s reinventing itself constantly. I love the closeness of Maritzburg and the sense of community which is lost in a larger city. A new arrival like me is struck by the sense that people really care about each other here, possibly because they may all actually know each other! It’s a wonderful characteristic that makes this city special.

Last week, I was fortunate to be invited to a meeting of some of the city’s leading CEOs and to speak to them about The Witness and our plans for the future.

They were welcoming, understanding and supportive — the kind of response that warms the heart of a new editor in a new place, and who has embarked on a challenging adventure. In later conversations during the course of the evening, I was also impressed by the common cause of the business community here in trying to make a difference to the city and its people. As I’ve said before, that’s a mission on which The Witness walks hand-in-hand with you.

• On Twitter @andrewtrench


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